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A Retro-future Metropolis

Fred Patten discusses Osamu Tezuka's Metropolis, a landmark film which cleverly straddles the past and the future to depict a tragic tale in a sprawling city where individuals struggle to assert their identities and freedom.

Metropolis comments on such sensitive themes as class struggle and the definition of humanity. All images © 2002 TriStar Pictures. All rights reserved.

Every so often a landmark film appears which advances the state of the art of animated features. These usually project a modernistic or futuristic mood. It is unusual when one is equally successful as a tribute to the past. Metropolis (formally Osamu Tezuka's Metropolis, to distinguish it from the classic Fritz Lang 1927 feature) superbly straddles both the past and the future. It blends the soft, "cartoony" art style of the late 1930s American theatrical short cartoons (Disney, Fleischer, Harmon & Ising) with the latest in computer graphics to tell a drama reminiscent of the sci-fi adventures of the 1920s and '30s; Lang's Metropolis and other such mid-'30s serials as The Phantom Empire and Undersea Kingdom also did this.

The Re-Creation of MetropolisOsamu Tezuka (1928-1989), Japan's "God of Comics" (Manga no Kamisama), is widely credited as the major creative influence on that nation's post-World War II comic book industry in the late 1940s and 1950s, and its animation industry in the late '50s and 1960s. He was known at the time as "the Walt Disney of Japan" (a title which has since passed to Hayao Miyazaki). One of his earliest TV animation staff was Rintaro (Shigeyuki Hayashi). In one of Tezuka's last communications to American anime fans in the mid-1980s, he urged them to seek out the manga of Katsuhiro Otomo, a new writer-artist who was winning his first awards (Domu, Akira). Osamu Tezuka's Metropolis, directed by Rintaro from a screenplay by Otomo (as part of the "Metropolis Committee," the credited producers -- five years in production at the Madhouse studio), is their tribute to Tezuka.

Kenichi, nephew and assistant to investigator Shunsaku Ban, is a new arrival to Metropolis, and Tima's guide.

At the same time, it is their opportunity to have fun, just as Tezuka did when he drew his Metropolis cartoon novel in the late 1940s. Tezuka's first cartoons were published while he was still a student, just after World War II ended. They caught the public's attention because of Tezuka's flamboyant use of cinematic effects (close-ups, tracking shots, unusual camera angles) and dramas (e.g., Westerns, modern crime thrillers, etc. influenced by the movies imported into Japan by the Allied Occupation) while most other Japanese cartoonists were still drawing traditional Japanese themes. One of Tezuka's first influential works was a cartoon-art adaptation of Crime and Punishment. Tezuka always admitted that his Metropolis (155 pages, published on September 15, 1949) was much less serious. In fact, he had not yet seen Lang's movie when he produced his version, inspired by the reviews and plot synopses of it and a picture of its movie poster showing the robot woman. His was more a generic synthesis of old sci-fi movies and adventure serials, with a Mad Scientist named Dr. Charles Laughton (after the actor who had played Dr. Moreau in the 1933 Island of Lost Souls, not the scientist Rotwang in Lang's Metropolis), a master criminal plotting to conquer the world with his army of robots (compare Tezuka's Duke Red with Eduardo Ciannelli in the 1940 Mysterious Dr. Satan), a tough Private Investigator, and a couple of adventurous young kids, one of whom is unwittingly the lost human-looking robot girl Michi (the equivalent of Maria in Lang's movie). When her robotic nature overcomes her innocence and she turns destructive, her climactic battle against the police atop a skyscraper is reminiscent of King Kong. Tezuka's rambling cartoon novel even contains obvious art references from the Disney-produced Mickey Mouse newspaper adventure strip of the '30s drawn by Floyd Gottfredson.

A glimpse of the Art Deco/futuristic city design of Tezuka's Metropolis.

Looking at the 1949 Metropolis today, it is easy to see why Tezuka tended to dismiss most of his earliest work before the 1950s (although his robot girl Michi was clearly a prototype for his Tetsuwan Atom/Astro Boy created a few years later, indicating that Astro Boy owes as much to Lang's Maria as to Collodi's Pinocchio). Otomo and Rintaro have wisely completely revamped Tezuka's youthful light parody of 1930s sci-fi movie themes story into a tighter and more dramatic story, which is a much better tribute to Tezuka's whole career. It also works better as a tribute to Lang's original concept, since it restores the cinematic visual emphasis of a towering futuristic city that is mostly Art Deco in design (or 1890s to 1910s for the slums), and the plot emphasis of a class struggle between labor and a capitalistic elite (represented by their new robot working class). But they (and character designer Yasuhiro Nakura) have retained Tezuka's early art style from the 1949 manga rather than using his more familiar and sophisticated style from his later works such as Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion.

Stunning

The first five minutes of the new Metropolis are worth the price of admission alone for the visual spectacle. It opens with a pseudo-1930s black-&-white newsreel of financial magnate Duke Red proclaiming the completion of his towering office building, the Ziggurat, which will confirm the status of Metropolis as the greatest nation in the world. The screen suddenly expands to a color CGI panorama of an inaugural celebration with thousands cheering in the streets, searchlights, fireworks, the sky aswarm with zeppelins crowded with sightseers. The camera swoops dizzingly upward, downward, and outward from the immense skyscraper, including a brief look out from an elite glass-walled restaurant on an upper floor of the Ziggurat.

The scene continues long enough to introduce the main plot elements. Duke Red is sharing the speakers' stand with Metropolis' President Boon. When reporters ask Duke Red if he is considering going into politics, he pledges his complete support to Boon's administration; but their glances and body language reveal that neither trusts the other. Conversation between a man and a boy in the crowd establish that they are strangers to Metropolis who have just arrived. Shunsaku Ban is an investigator from Japan with his young nephew Kenichi as his assistant. They are tracking a scientist guilty of illegal research in robotics. Shots are heard, and a group of men in similar clothing are seen shooting at a figure who turns out to be a robot disguised as a human. Ban and Kenichi overhear conversation that reveals that the men are in the uniform of the Marduks, a militant anti-robot political party that everyone knows amounts to a private army controlled by Duke Red; and that anti-robot prejudice has been growing stronger as more humans are becoming unemployed due to being replaced by them by the city's ruling capitalist elite.

Rock tries to eliminate Tima to gain the affection of his foster father Duke Red, the Ziggurat's creator.

The 1949 manga plot was mostly a straightforward confrontation between Ban and Duke Red, while the robot girl who believes that she is human searches for her parents. In the more complex movie plot, Duke Red has brought Dr. Laughton (no first name) to Metropolis to create a new-generation Artificial Intelligence to control the super-computer, which is secretly built into the Ziggurat. Duke Red insists that this A.I. be made in the form of a robot duplicate of his dead daughter, Tima (instead of Michi). Due to plot machinations, Tima is lost, activated without any instructions, and discovered by Kenichi who believes that she is a traumatized human with amnesia. She does not merely have adventures as Michi did; Tima is also on a quest for identity. Is she a robot, or does her human-level Artificial Intelligence make her human in a moral sense? Many of the wonders of Metropolis are seen through the eyes of Tima.

The 1949 manga plot was mostly a straightforward confrontation between Ban and Duke Red, while the robot girl who believes that she is human searches for her parents. In the more complex movie plot, Duke Red has brought Dr. Laughton (no first name) to Metropolis to create a new-generation Artificial Intelligence to control the super-computer, which is secretly built into the Ziggurat. Duke Red insists that this A.I. be made in the form of a robot duplicate of his dead daughter, Tima (instead of Michi). Due to plot machinations, Tima is lost, activated without any instructions, and discovered by Kenichi who believes that she is a traumatized human with amnesia. She does not merely have adventures as Michi did; Tima is also on a quest for identity. Is she a robot, or does her human-level Artificial Intelligence make her human in a moral sense? Many of the wonders of Metropolis are seen through the eyes of Tima.

A Clever Collection of Past and Future

The action in this 107-minute feature seldom slows down, but it is almost incidental to the vast city in which it takes place. This Metropolis with its newest and most imposing Ziggurat may derive from Fritz Lang's updating of the Tower of Babel, but it is easy to assume that the directors also studied such movies as Blade Runner and The Fifth Element to make sure that their ultimate future city would not be inferior to any others. Settings shift from the palatial offices of the elite to a gaudy entertainment district to squalid slums to ominous scientific laboratories (in different art styles; compare Dr. Laughton's lab, modeled upon those in 1930s Frankenstein movies, to the more-obviously CGI mechanistic lab atop the Ziggurat at the climax) to huge underground sewers. The CGI is used masterfully to create the sensation of a teeming population. There are numerous scenes of crowded streets with dozens if not hundreds of characters seeming to move individually. But my favorite is a city square on a wintry morning after a failed anti-robot uprising. There is almost nobody in sight; just the empty square with the scuffed snow covered in what looks like thousands of footprints.

Tima, a robot, searches for her moral identity and place in society.

Many scenes and shots are designed to make individual characters appear insignificant in comparison to the city. This supports the continual struggle by several characters to refuse to let the city dominate them. An ongoing question is whether the robots should be considered as part of the city or as individuals. Tima is not the only one that seems self-aware. Pero, a junky robot contemptuously given by the Metropolis police to Ban as a local guide, looks as comical as the robots in the 1930s movie serials, but his intelligent dialogue and wise advice give him a tragic dignity.

One of the key elements in establishing the mood of the 1930s and '40s is the jazz music. The original score is by Toshiyuki Honda, one of Japan's leading jazz performers since the 1970s. Honda composed a 1920s Dixieland-style score for the movie, performed by a group named the "Metropolitan Rhythm Kings" that, according to the publicity, included director Rintaro on the bass clarinet. There are also a few vintage American numbers, most notably St. James Infirmary and I Can't Stop Loving You, which are surprisingly effective.

Metropolis was released in Japan on May 26, 2001. It premiered in America at the Hollywood Egyptian Theater on August 17th, and was supposed to be released by TriStar Pictures on November 9th. But due to the post-September 11th sensibilities about movies showing the destruction of giant buildings, the release was postponed until January 25, 2002. It deserves to be a contender for the new Academy Awards category for Best Animated Feature.

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s.

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